It has been many years since I attended an ACM conference, and even more years since I attended the Lisp and Functional Programming Conference, which has evolved into the International Conference on Functional Programming (ICFP). ICFP was in the United States this year, and I’ve wanted to drop in for quite some time. There are many ideas pioneered by the functional programming community, and as much as possible I like to go to the original sources of ideas. ICFP is a long conference with many attached events, and it turns out that the best use of my time was to drop in for the Haskell workshop at the tail end of the conference, and the Commercial Users of Functional Programming (CUFP) conference.
I’ve been around long enough to remember when Haskell first came out, and despite my stint as a database programming languages grad student, I’ve never had the chance to really give Haskell the attention that I feel it deserves. 20 year since its appearance Haskell is still barely on the radar. At the same time, I heard some very interesting talks at the workshop. Things like the Hoopl library for implementing dataflow optimzations in compilers, and the Orc DSL for concurrent scripting. The Haskell systems hackers have made great progress and doing some great work. Bryan O’ Sullivan described his work on improving GHC’s ability to handle lots of long lived open network connections. Given the recent burst of interest in event based programming models, such as Node.js, this is an interesting result. Simon Marlow presented a redesign of the Evaluation Strategies mechanism that GHC uses to control parallelism. Many of the talks that I heard have ideas that are applicable to problems that exist in modern systems. I just wish that I could see a path the involved using Haskell itself to solve those problems instead of the ideas migrating into another language/system.
Unbeknownst to me, my friend Theo Schlossnagle ran Surge, a conference on scalability, in Baltimore, and it overlapped the parts of ICFP that I attended. Surge seems to have flown pretty low under the radar. Google doesn’t return many relevant results for it, and the best information (other than talking to Surge attendees) I’ve been able to find on Surge is on Lanyrd. Theo told me that he was counting on this year’s attendees to be his PR for next year. I didn’t attend, but based on the tweets and dinner conversations, it sounds like it was great. I had dinner/beers with some Apache folks who were in town for Surge, as well as some Surge attendees like Bryan Cantrill. The “systems guys” gave me a good ribbing about being at a conference for “irrelevant languages”, and I had a really good conversation with Bryan about Node.js, cloud computing, and the Oracle acquisition (ok, that part wasn’t so good). Node.js is on a lot of people’s minds at the moment, and it was good to hear Bryan’s perspective on it. It was an interesting sidebar to the immersion in functional programming. I do think that in the medium term there are some interesting connections between Node and FP, but that ‘s probably an entire post of its own.
There was a lot of F# related content at CUFP, and I think that Microsoft deserves kudos for the work that they are doing. I think it’s pretty clear that shipping F# in the box with Visual Studio 2010 is not a huge money maker for Microsoft at this point, and I’m impressed with their willingness to take a long term view of the future of programming. Unfortunately I’m not a Windows ecosystem person, so as attractive as F# and Visual Studio are, I doubt that I’ll be playing with this anytime soon.
Marius Eriksen‘s talk on Scala at Twitter was interesting because of the way that he described the conceptualization of Rockdove operations as folds, taking clear advantage of the benefits offered by a functional style. He also had some thought provoking comments about giving applications access to the behavior of the garbage collector. There are some interesting possibilities if you start to give developers control of the behavior of various parts of the runtime system.
Michael Fogus talked about his company’s experience using Scala. His talk was pretty entertaining, and there were some interesting comparisons between Scala features that they thought would be useful and Scala features that actually turned out to be useful. My only issue with his talk was the size of the sample, which isn’t something that he could do anything about. This was also true of the talk by the Intel compiler folks.
Warren Harris from Metaweb talked about his use of monads, arrows, and OCaml to build a more efficient query processor for Freebase’s MQL query language. This was a really interesting talk, because query optimization was the topic of my graduate school research, and at the time the connections between query languages and functional programming were a relatively new topic.
It doesn’t take much to fan the flames of functional love in me. There are lots of smart people working on beautiful and interesting solutions. I wish that I could see a better path for those ideas to make it into mainstream practice.